There’s a horrible moment when you have a certain ambition – even if it is just a pipe dream – that you need to realise someone’s doing it better than you. In this case, it’s the pipe dream of being a filmmaker, which I’ve always comfortably sat at the back of my mind under the umbrella of “Oh but I’m far too young” as my excuse. And then you see two masterful films from someone who’s only two-and-a-half months older than you.
Enter Xavier Dolan, a writer-director-actor who had his two films released on DVD here recently. They are I Killed My Mother (2009) and Heartbeats (2010) and they’re both rather excellent – especially for someone who might have been considered far too young at some point.
Dolan stars as Hubert, son to Anne Dorval’s Chantale. The two do not get along very well, and this is the central conflict of the film. But it isn’t a simple tale of two people who don’t like each other – one of the earliest shots is Hubert speaking with the camera, iterating that he does love his mother, just that he doesn’t feel right being her son. And no, that doesn’t mean there’s anything even remotely Oedipal to it at all – he just feels like he can’t love her like a son is supposed to.
Hubert is also gay, a fact he’s kept from his mother, and you’re left wondering how much of his frustration at his mother stems from the fact that he wants to live a lifestyle she’s not exactly aware he wants to live. He often finds refuge at his boyfriend Antonin’s house, and Antonin’s mother is everything Chantale is not – carefree, accepting, and most significantly of all, has a fun relationship with his mother.
At school, Hubert’s class is asked to write an essay about their parents. Following an argument with Chantale on the way to school, he lies to his teacher and says that his mother is dead. When the teacher finds out the truth, she tells him “You killed your mother,” and this is where the title comes from – just to allay any fears that this was yet another horror movie being reviewed.
What the film is, is a very thorough and even-handed look at the complexities of a mother-son relationship. It has a very raw truth to it, and even before you hear Dolan confirm it in interviews, you can tell that the film is dripping with autobiography.
For every instance of Hubert raging at Chantale (and another thing I like – their arguments usually stem from very trivial things, like her constant assumptions of kids his age, or what they’re listening to in the car) there’s a counterpoint that lets you understand Chantale’s point of view – and the power of Dorval’s performance means that nearly all of these moments go without being explicitly stated.
Chantale and a friend go to a day spa, and there meet Antonin’s mother, who reveals that Hubert is gay, having just assumed that Hubert would have told Chantale. This scene is played impeccably – you understand that a) she accepts this fact about her son, b) that it’s probably a key to her difficulties with him, and c) that she’s really hurt that he didn’t tell her – without it ever being explicitly stated. She brings up the last point in a confrontation with Hubert later in the film, but you already understand her point of view ages before that.
Things come to a head when Hubert and Chantale have a particularly stubborn argument – again, over something trivial – and while the fight isn’t particularly vicious, their mutual frustrations with each other boil over, and they both run away; Chantale to just get away from the house for a while, Hubert to get away from Chantale for longer. As a result of this, Hubert is sent away to boarding school, where he has a brief affair with another student, which culminates in him taking speed, catching a train back home, waking up his mother and pouring his heart out a-mile-a-minute to her. I loved this moment, because he’s saying very genuine things, and she’s hearing them as such, but at the same time she’s ultimately concerned by the fact that he’s very clearly high.
It gets undercut the next morning – Hubert explains that he was high and didn’t know what he was saying. But we don’t know if this is Hubert just once again hurting his mother, or if it’s the opposite, and he genuinely didn’t know what he was saying and is worried that he’s said something that might have hurt her – the film plays it nicely, but ambiguously. However this marks the point where the two start having a better relationship. It’s not good by any means, but there seems to be a bit more relevance to the arguments, a bit more of an understanding between the two – even if they do use that to hurt the other.
At the film’s end, Hubert runs away from boarding school, and three important things happen. Firstly, Antonin calls Hubert out for being as monumentally selfish as he is. This was really refreshing, because watching an obviously autobiographical movie where the writer and director is starring as the lead can obviously lead it into Mary Sue territory – and I’ll admit that while I thought it was writing of an excellent calibre, I was wondering if Dolan had realised that he was essentially just an angsting teen – so it’s nice to see the voice of rationality included. It’s not just a particularly good piece of teenaged writing, it’s balanced and aware of what’s going on within.
To put it in a better way, you see Hubert’s frustrations as self-involved but legitimate, whereas similarly themed material, such as Skins is just angst and bitching about being bored without much legitimacy – and I chose Skins for that analogy given that it’s also written by people the same age as the characters.
The second important thing is when the principal of Hubert’s boarding school calls Chantale to let her know he’s run away. He patronises her at one point and suggests that Hubert’s difficulties lie in the fact that his father is largely absent from his life, and he suggests that her single-parenting hasn’t been up to scratch. What follows is one of the best pieces of rage I have ever seen, as she promptly tells him where to stick his theories. It’s also finally a moment where we get to see Chantale’s thoughts uninhibited. She does not hold back an ounce of truth in what she says, and it’s so clear that this is the unburdening of years and years of sublimation to Hubert, to the society she’s found herself in, and to her own motherhood. It’s also simultaneously stirring and hilarious – you’d feel bad for laughing at the time, but you’d have coffee with Chantale a few years later and giggle tremendously.
Then the third important thing is Chantale going to Hubert. She knows where he’s run to, and just goes to sit with him. It’s not a conclusive ending, but it doesn’t need to be; you understand so much about their relationship in the final shot – there’s even a fair bit of optimism here that perhaps Hubert will grow up a little – and the film closes with old footage of young Hubert and Chantale playing together.
If you can’t tell, I loved this film. I was swept up in the story – and I’ve only covered maybe a third of all that happens in the film in this review – and I was amazed by the sophistication of the writing. Dolan wrote this when he was 17; what could have been an utterly angst-filled and overwrought melodrama has been crafted by someone who’s clearly very talented and has also lived through much of what’s on screen. What I’m more amazed by is the balance of perspective – particularly including a scene where Hubert is called out for his selfish ways – but the fact that you never side with either character.
For every time you think “Oh Hubert, grow up!” you have a moment where you want Chantale to get off her ass and make an effort. But making those assumptions gets handled with in how much is revealed about the two without saying anything at all – this is a masterpiece of “show-don’t-tell” and it’s all the better for it. There are points along the way that could’ve been clichéd and trite, but they’re dealt with so well that you just want to know more of what’s happening.
I haven’t even touched on the film’s visual style yet – Dolan is clearly on his way to becoming quite the auteur, and he’s already imbued his first feature with a look of it’s own: the framing, the lighting, the overall mise-en-scene and use of colour is amazing. Nor have I mentioned the comedy of the proceedings – it’s every bit as funny as it is dramatic, and I’d hate to misrepresent the tone of the film.
This is a masterful film, and I’ve deliberately left out a lot of the film’s overall content because you need to see it. It’s an incredible film, especially when you consider the age of its creator.